Italy has been a country on my bucket list for as long as I can remember even when all I associated with the place was pizza, pasta and exotic-sounding designers and car manufacturers. After moving to London, I finally had the chance to visit Milan and Rome for quick city breaks which allowed me to discover more of all the splendour that Italy has to offer, which only made me want to come back for more to really immerse myself in the Italian experience.
I finally got the timing right and started planning an Italian adventure that I imagined would be the trip of a lifetime. My only dilemma was that I wanted to see and do it all in eleven days and spent ages trying to narrow the options down to fit in my must-see Italian cities. It was not an easy task but after much deliberation, we finally booked our Italian adventure starting with arrival into Venice followed by a roadtrip (an adventure in itself) to Florence via Bologna and Maranello. From Florence we travelled to Naples via the high speed train system and then proceeded to drive along the Amalfi Coast to a little bit of paradise nestled in the hillside town of Positano. Finally, we ended the great Italian adventure by driving back to Naples and spending a night there before returning back to London. If I had to sum up my Italian experience in one word it would be magnifico (Italian for bloody marvellous)
There are so many amazing things about Italy – from the food to the most picturesque streets – and it has definitely earned a secure spot in one of my all-time favourite destinations but I’ve tried to round up the best of my Italian adventure in one handy little list, just in case you’re considering a trip to Italy and need a little nudge…
Visit in spring, autumn or even winter
I was skeptical about booking a trip to Italy outside of summer as I feared that i would miss out on the quintessential Italian (albeit touristy) experiences of eating gelato in the warm sunshine and sipping cappuccino in quaint little streets while people watching- cos let’s face it, that’s some of the best bits about travelling to a new destination. My reservations were unfounded as the weather in late March was nothing short of perfect, warm enough to get by with a light long sleeved layer and a trench coat for evenings, definitely appropriate for consuming gelato at every opportunity and dining al fresco. Having visited in September and January before, I would say that this is your best bet for avoiding hordes of tourists on every corner and being able to take in the sights and sounds without a pedestrian traffic jam everywhere you go. The summers can be uncomfortably hot,making walking around the beautiful streets exhausting and you will find yourself often queuing for popular attractions and good restaurants. Moreso, you will save yourself a pretty penny by booking flights and hotel accommodation outside of the peak tourist season.
As a lover of Italian food, I looked forward to enjoying copious quantities of pizza and pasta. Safe to say there are few, if any, halal outlets in central areas in most of the cities we have visited, so your options for halal friendly meals are most often vegetarian or seafood meals. As this somewhat limits the options for dining out, your meals can be quite hit and miss. I have found that it’s helpful to research the areas you will be visiting for restaurants that have several vegetarian options (Tripadvisor is a great resource for this) and seek out places where they have menus in English and/or waiters who are fluent in English. This can sometimes mean that you are entering a tourist trap with subpar food at tourist prices; however a little research goes a long way. Also, ensure that you always check with the waiter regarding meals that have been prepared with wine as this is often common with some pasta dishes. My personal go to meal is a pasta arrabbiata or pomodoro – safe for vegetarians and usually rather delicious. Alternatively, I would opt for a ricotta and spinach cannelloni or maybe a margherita pizza. Always ensure that you notify the server that you are strictly vegetarian as some cheeses and even pizza dough may contain items not suitable for vegetarians. Skip the dusting of parmesan cheese as this is usually not vegetarian friendly.
Most meals were served with a complementary bread basket, making for a carb-lover’s dream of perfectly warm bread dipped in the best olive oil and vinegar I have tasted to date. The best part of the food for me is the dolce with gelato being my preferred option. As someone who is not usually a fan of ice cream, let me assure you that gelato is worth every calorie and two scoops a day are mandatory when visiting Italy. Always go for the handmade wafer cones and try the wide selection of flavours on offer. My favourites are chocolate and coffee but I did try some delicious nutella and pistachio too! If you’re a coffee drinker, Italian coffee is a treat for your tastebuds so do start your morning off right with a heavenly cappuccino. Interestingly, aside from breakfast, Italians won’t be seen out in a restaurant leisurely sipping on their coffee. Instead, caffeine fixes are quick and often served to patrons standing at the counter, which costs less than having your beverages served to you at a table.
An unusual thing about Italy is that the majority of eateries levy a a cover charge for each person that dines at the restaurant. This can be anything from EUR1 a person upwards so if you are budget conscious, look for the fine print on the menu before you commit to a place for dinner.
Go, prepared to come back struggling to fit into your favourite pair of jeans because I assure you that half the Italian adventure is the gastronomic delight that awaits you.
Wander until you are lost
I have mentioned before that my preference (as a result of being subject to many walking tours early on in my marriage) is to see a city by walking through it. While you can take in the sights and sounds through a hop-on, hop-off tour, the best way to delve into the heart of the city is by exploring it on foot. Whether through guided walking tours or on your own, armed with a map, get some stylishly comfortable trainers and walk as much as you can to popular attractions and along quiet side streets. Get lost if you can, you may discover some gems in the most unexpected places and you will return with tired feet but feeling as if you’ve really absorbed the city. This is best achieved if you are able to stay in a central location that is within walking distance to the main stations and attractions.
Being a destination that I had wanted to visit for so long, I had great expectations for Italy and my Italian adventure did not disappoint.
For more about each of the destinations we covered on our Italian adventure, watch this space. You can also follow us on Instagram to see more from our travels and behind the scenes at Muslim By Design.